The Story of the SynthAxe, the Astonishing 1980s Guitar Synthesizer: Only 100 Were Ever Made

What is the musi­cal instru­ment most thor­ough­ly of the 1980s? Many would say the “key­tar,” a class of syn­the­siz­er key­boards shaped and worn like a gui­tar. Their rel­a­tive­ly light weights and afford­able prices, even when first brought to mar­ket, put key­tars with­in the reach of musi­cians who want­ed to pos­sess both the wide son­ic palette of dig­i­tal syn­the­sis and the inher­ent cool of the gui­tarist. This arrange­ment was­n’t with­out its com­pro­mis­es: few key­tar play­ers enjoyed the full range of that son­ic palette, to say noth­ing of that cool. But in 1985, a new hope appeared for the syn­the­siz­er-envy­ing gui­tarist and gui­tar-envy­ing syn­the­sist alike: the Syn­thAxe.

Cre­at­ed by Eng­lish inven­tors Bill Aitken, Mike Dixon, and Tony Sedi­vy (and fund­ed in part by Richard Bran­son’s Vir­gin Group), the Syn­thAxe made a quan­tum leap in the devel­op­ment of syn­the­siz­er-gui­tars, or gui­tar-syn­the­siz­ers. Unlike a key­tar, it used actu­al strings — not just one but two inde­pen­dent sets of them — that when played could con­trol any syn­the­siz­er com­pat­i­ble with the recent­ly intro­duced Musi­cal Instru­ment Dig­i­tal Inter­face (MIDI) stan­dard.

As Gui­tarist mag­a­zine edi­tor Neville Marten demon­strates in the con­tem­po­rary pro­mo­tion­al video at the top of the post, this grant­ed any­one who could play the gui­tar com­mand of all the sounds cut­ting-edge syn­the­siz­ers could make.

Not that mas­tery of the gui­tar trans­lat­ed imme­di­ate­ly into mas­tery of the Syn­thAxe: even the most pro­fi­cient gui­tarist had to get used to the unusu­al­ly sharp angle of its neck, its even­ly spaced frets, and the set of keys embed­ded in its body. (“That is the point, it’s not a gui­tar,” as Aitken took pains to explain.) You can see Lee Rite­nour make use of both the Syn­thAx­e’s strings and keys in the 1985 con­cert clip above. Nick­named “Cap­tain Fin­gers” due to his sheer dex­ter­i­ty, Rite­nour had been in search of ways to expand his sound, exper­i­ment­ing with gui­tar-syn­the­siz­er hybrid sys­tems even in the 70s. When the Syn­thAxe came along, not only did he record a whole album with it, that album’s cov­er is a paint­ing of him with the strik­ing new instru­ment in hand.

So is the cov­er of Atavachron, the first album Allan Holdsworth record­ed after meet­ing the Syn­thAx­e’s cre­ators at a trade show. No gui­tarist would take up the Syn­thAxe with the same fer­vor: Holdsworth, seen play­ing it with a breath con­troller (!) in the clip above, would con­tin­ue to use it on his record­ings up until his death in 2017. “Peo­ple used to write notes on my amp, ask­ing me to stop play­ing the Syn­thAxe and play the gui­tar instead,” he told Gui­tar World in his final inter­view that year. “But now peo­ple often ask me, ‘We’d love to hear you play the Syn­thAxe — did you bring it?’ I rarely play it onstage any­more because it’s too cost­ly to take on the road and it requires a lot of equip­ment.”

The amount of asso­ci­at­ed gear no doubt put many an aspir­ing syn­the­siz­er-gui­tarist off the Syn­thAxe. (“It’s about as portable as a drum kit isn’t,” writes ear­ly adopter John Hol­lis.) So must the price tag, a cool £10,000 back in 1985. This did­n’t put off gui­tarist Alec Stans­field, whose enthu­si­asm for the Syn­thAxe as was such that he joined the com­pa­ny, hav­ing “knocked long and hard on their door until they gave me a job as a pro­duc­tion engi­neer.” Alas, he writes, “the instru­ment was nev­er a com­mer­cial suc­cess and even­tu­al­ly the com­pa­ny ceased trad­ing. Few­er than 100 instru­ments had been pro­duced in total. In the final months I was paid with a Syn­thAxe sys­tem since cash was tight” — a sys­tem he shows off in the video above

Stans­field sold off his Syn­thAxe in 2013, but what has become of the oth­ers? One of Rite­nour’s Syn­thAx­es even­tu­al­ly found its way into the pos­ses­sion of Roy Wil­fred Wooten, bet­ter known as Future Man of Béla Fleck and the Fleck­tones. “Over a peri­od of time, he began mod­i­fy­ing it into an almost entire­ly new instru­ment: the Syn­thAxe Dru­mi­tar,” writes Com­put­er His­to­ry Muse­um cura­tor Chris Gar­cia. “This sys­tem, which replaced the strings as the pri­ma­ry trig­ger­ing mech­a­nism, allowed Wooten to play the ‘drums’ using the gui­tar-like device.” In the con­cert clip just above, you can behold Future Man play­ing and explain­ing this “Syn­thAxe­Dru­mi­tar,” sounds like a drum kit but looks like a gui­tar — though rather vague­ly, at this point. Call it Syn­thAxe-meets-Mad Max.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Behold the First Elec­tric Gui­tar: The 1931 “Fry­ing Pan”

Bri­an May’s Home­made Gui­tar, Made From Old Tables, Bike and Motor­cy­cle Parts & More

Hear Musi­cians Play the Only Playable Stradi­var­ius Gui­tar in the World: The “Sabionari”

The Nano Gui­tar: Dis­cov­er the World’s Small­est, Playable Micro­scop­ic Gui­tar

How the Yama­ha DX7 Dig­i­tal Syn­the­siz­er Defined the Sound of 1980s Music

Every­thing Thing You Ever Want­ed to Know About the Syn­the­siz­er: A Vin­tage Three-Hour Crash Course

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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